Remodelling in the Family Jewel Box

In honor of Valentine’s Day, the holiday devoted to love, a discussion of a practice common during the Regency, which many women took as proof of the love and respect of their betrothed or their husband. And yet, today, such a practice would offend most women, should they learn about it. They would take it as an insult and thus such an action would put their fiancé or husband squarely in the basement of the doghouse.

Why there is less eighteenth-century jewellery today than there was before the Regency . . .

Though it would surprise many people today, archaeologists and anthropologists have determined that in most early cultures, jewellery, not clothing, came first. Humans have always had the need for personal adornment, and that need has remained with us down through the millenia. In the very earliest times, the jewellery worn by prehistoric peoples tended to be as much for personal protection as for personal adornment, in the form of objects believed to hold mystical powers. Over time, jewellery took on other responsibilities, such as demonstrating the wealth, rank, political or social affiliation of the wearer, or their family. Well into the eighteenth century, wealthy and powerful men wore fine jewellery, or draped their wives and other close female relatives with expensive jewels, to proclaim their own status and power. That all began to change in the last decades of the eighteenth century.

The Rococo style was the fashion through much of the eighteenth century. Rococo developed in France out of the richly ornate Baroque style. Though the Rococo style in architecture never flourished in Great Britain, it was popular in the styles of both clothing and jewellery. For much of the eighteenth century, jewellery design was elaborate, florid and curvilinear, for both men and women. Perceived as "decadent," this style rapidly fell out of fashion in the wake of the Revolution in France. The restrained, rectilinear lines of the Neo-Classical style had displaced the sinuous and curvilinear lines of the Rococo in both clothing and jewellery design by the turn of the nineteenth century.

Even before the Regency began, another change was taking place in what might be called etiquette in the wearing of jewellery. It had come to be considered vulgar to wear a lot of jewellery, or very large pieces, even for important evening events. Men had significantly cut back the size and quantity of jewellery they wore, typically sporting a stick pin in their cravat, sleeve buttons, a watch and a few fobs at their waist, even for evening wear. For day wear, most respectable upper and middle class women might wear only a small locket or cross suspended from a fine chain, and maybe a finger ring or two. Few women wore earrings during the day, but if they did, those earrings were quite small, often no more than simple studs. When attending ton events in the evenings, such as balls, routs, musicales, or the theatre, women might wear drop earrings, more substantial necklaces, broaches, as well as bracelets and/or armlets, in addition to more elaborate finger rings, and, on very formal occasions, tiaras or diadems.

Many upper-class, and even some middle-class Regency families with a long history had sets of family jewels which were passed down from generation to generation. Few families had strong sentimental feelings about their family pieces. Rather, they represented family wealth which was malleable and could be remodeled as the need arose. Perhaps the most common remodelling took place on the occasion of the betrothal of an aristocratic family’s eldest son and heir. A diamond parure was de rigueur for a court presentation, which would be expected soon after the marriage. Most families of the nobility owned such a set of jewellery, but over the years, they would go out of fashion. Therefore, shortly after an engagement was contracted, the family’s diamond parure would be sent off to the family jeweller to be re-set in a modern style.

In many cases, older diamonds might be slightly re-cut, and/or polished, to give them increased brilliance. If the settings were gold or silver, they could be melted down and re-cast for the new setting. The jeweller had to be paid for this work, but in most cases, the older pieces were much larger and more intricate. Therefore, there was often more gemstones and precious metal in the old pieces than were needed for the new ones. Many jewellers would accept any surplus gems or precious metals as all or partial payment for their remodeling work. Or, a wealthy family might prefer to have the surplus stones and metals used to create additional pieces to go with the new set, thus retaining the full complement of family jewels in the remodelled set. Since this was a common practice as part of the business of most aristocratic engagements, should a young man or his family not bother to have the family diamonds remodeled for the new bride, she would certainly be both hurt and insulted.

However, it was not just the family diamonds that would be remodeled from time to time. Fine jewellery was very expensive and it must be kept in mind that there was a war in progress for the first half of the Regency, and an economic depression during the second half. Not to mention that people in the Regency were much less likely to toss away something considered to be old or out-of-style than we would today. Old and out-dated clothing was picked apart and the resulting cloth was used to make new garments. It was much the same with older pieces of jewellery. An elderly relative might have one or more old-fashioned pieces remodeled for use by a younger relative about to make her debut. Ladies also had their jewellery remodeled to make different pieces to suit their current needs. For example, one aristocratic lady had a large broach remodeled into a pair of earrings. Another had a necklace remodelled into a pair of broaches and a gem-studded tortoise-shell comb.

But it was not only aristocratic ladies who had their jewellery remodeled to update the contents of their jewel box. Many middle-class ladies did the same with their better pieces as well. An old-fashioned necklace might become a broach and a pair of hair ornaments, or a pendant and chain might be turned into an elegant evening ring. While visiting London, Elinor Dashwood, in Sense and Sensibility, takes some of her mother’s old-fashioned jewels to the jeweller, Thomas Grey, on Sackville-Street, to get them updated. Those who read the first edition of Jane Austen’s novel would have thought nothing of such an errand, since many of them had probably done the same thing from time to time.

Might the remodelling of some of the family jewels serve the plot of a Regency romance or three? A tyrannical mother who objects to her son’s choice of bride might refuse to allow the family parure to be remodeled for that young lady’s presentation at court. Or, perhaps a young lady, of a sentimental turn of mind, and knowing her betrothed is the same, requests that he not have one or more of the family jewels re-worked, since both of them treasure tradition and want to retain the old pieces. Mayhap in the face of family objection? Then again, an impoverished "spinster" sister might take some of her mother’s or grand-mother’s jewels to a jeweller to have them remodelled for her younger sister’s debut. She hands them over to the jeweler with the expectation that since smaller, less elaborate pieces are needed, the surplus gems and precious metals will cover the cost of the remodelling. But when she goes to collect the remodeled pieces, the jeweler claims there was no surplus and charges her a substantial sum for the work. Will the hero be the one to save the day? Dear Regency Authors, can you think of other ways to use remodelled jewellery in one of your upcoming stories?

About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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8 Responses to Remodelling in the Family Jewel Box

  1. … or the heroine, on taking family jewels to be remodelled, is told they are nothing but paste. Is this true? Is the jeweller genuine, or trying to rob her? if it’s true, who replaced the gems and when? is there a family scandal in the reason, and will the heroine discover what it is, and why the family jewels should be thus cavalierly disposed of?

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      This plot bunny has lots of promise for a romance and/or a whodunit.

      Paste had been around for almost a century by the Regency. It would have fooled most people at that time, since the brilliant-cut diamond was not created until the 20th century. The rose-cut diamonds of the Regency would have been easily duplicated in paste. Only an expert would have been able to tell the difference. There is much there to work with in a story.



  2. Nice plot bunnies, all of them! I love Sarah‘s with the fake gems. Here is my try:
    Young Lord B. has been engaged to the beautiful Miss C. He is on his way to have the family’s diamond parure altered for her, when he meets his best friend, Lord K., in the street.
    Lord K, lively and always short of money, asks Lord B to help him out with a certain sum: He has to pay gambling debts urgently. Lord K will pay the money back in a trice, as Lord K will come into an inheritance very soon (his unmarried and rich uncle died two days ago, and he surely has made Lord K. his main heir). Lord B. doesn’t have much money either, but Lord K. talks Lord B. into pawning the diamond parure. It is, after all, just for a couple of days, and Lord B. will be able to retrieve the diamond parure soon. Lord B. is not the man not helping in friend in need, so he pawns the diamond parure.
    Of course, Lord K.’s plan goes wrong. His late uncle hasn’t bequeathed anything to him at all, but to Lord K’s “odious” cousin. Will Lord B. and Lord K. find a way to retrieve the jewels Miss C. is supposed to wear very soon at a great and important event? And if not, will Miss C. break the engagement, maybe to marry the “odious” cousin instead?

    • Nice one, Anna. if I was the betrothed, I’d marry the ‘odious’ cousin rather than a man who breaks his promises and fails to honour a committment. If he cheats on a promise plainly he’s a man who might cheat in marriage, and whilst loyalty to a friend is all very well, I’d suspect him of putting his friends above the birthright of his children…. He’d have to talk VERY fast

      • Kathryn Kane says:

        I have to say that I agree with you about Lord B.’s behavior. To pawn the parure is beyond the pale. If he had offered to help his friend in some other way, that would be admirable, but not with his lady’s diamonds. Tsk, Tsk. He would have to talk very fast, indeed!!!


        • :- ) . I am sure “featherbrained” is Lord B’s middlename. He can’t take part in the happy ending of this plot. We must set our hope to the “odious” cousin, certainly a Mr. Darcy-like character.

          • Indeed, Lord B seems a well-meaning sort without any sense at all; rather less able than Sherry, in Heyer’s Friday’s Child [lud he don’t need a wife, he needs a keeper]. Perhaps this incident makes him grow up, and he can find true love in a sequel after havig blown it.

            • Kathryn Kane says:

              Oooh! I like that idea. Lord B is not stupid or malicious, just young and overly loyal to his friends. I am sure he would mature into a wonderful hero in a sequel.


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